Any idea that Tim Davie might enjoy a honeymoon period as the BBC’s new director-general has gone up in smoke.
He takes over the job today, with the row about the Last Night of the Proms still reverberating and with every opinion poll confirming that the public firmly thinks the BBC got it wrong with its decision last week to downgrade Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory.
But far more worrying for the Corporation’s 17th ‘DG’ are the hostile noises coming from the Government.
Ministers seem determined to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and some are even briefing that its days are numbered.
The pressure is on Davie to find an alternative — and fast.
I worked at the BBC for 33 years and have known Tim for many of them.
He gives a strong sense of being a ‘regular guy’.
The BBC’s new director general, Tim Davie, will certainly not get to enjoy a honeymoon period in his new job
He worked his way up from a typical suburban background, was a success in major corporations such as Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, and can therefore cast a critical eye on some of the assumptions of the broadcasting establishment.
I think he has the right kind of mind for the job and, above all, the energy. He will certainly need that energy in the coming months.
The BBC is being assailed on multiple fronts: if these are not tackled, it is in danger of entering an existential crisis.
I’m a firm supporter of the Corporation.
The risks of losing a public service broadcaster are shown every day in the U.S., where there is no common ground between Left and Right — and where tensions are fuelled by a polarised media.
The U.S. has no platform where its citizens can come together: at its best, the BBC supplies that platform here.
But we advocates of the BBC have to recognise the new reality.
In Britain, political consent for the licence fee is eroding at both ends of the spectrum, and the very idea of a licence — that is, a tax — for having a television looks like a throwback to a bygone age.
I can see the allure of decriminalisation: it is, of course, a terrible idea to threaten pensioners with prison if they don’t pay.
But I also have serious doubts about a smooth transition to a civil enforcement system, which would mean higher fines than are currently in place, and even the threat of bailiffs being sent to seize non-payers’ property.
Removing criminal sanctions would also blow a random hole in the Corporation’s finances, and could not be done without very careful planning.
Yesterday, it was reported that Davie is ‘open’ to implementing a subscription model to replace the licence fee (though I suspect this may prove to be technically difficult).
Outgoing DG Lord Hall floated the idea of replacing the licence fee with a ‘household tax’, similar to the model in Germany. It would be a mistake not to consider these options.
However, it is dangerous to assume that public funding can be painlessly discarded, or that the BBC could easily withstand a massive and sudden drop in its £5billion annual income.
This time it really is different; and it is magical thinking to imagine that the market will step in to replace the things — such as local radio or quality U.K. drama — that the BBC would be forced to abandon if its budget were slashed.
Whatever happens to the licence fee during his tenure, Davie needs to start a sensible debate with the Government about what size and remit is best for the Corporation in the years ahead.
And he should start from the assumption that the BBC could manage with fewer channels.
He needs to be honest about what he wants the BBC to do, how much it will cost and how it can find the money without penalising the poorest.
The row about the Last Night of the Proms from last week continues to reverberate in opinion polls
Just as importantly, he needs to tackle the growing feeling among sections of the public that the BBC is not on their side.
The brouhaha over the Proms, in which high-ups at the BBC seemed to question a pride in Britishness, has prompted despair among current and former executives.
One tells me it was ‘unbelievable’; while another, hardened by previous battles, says that almost every year some bright spark in the music department suggested dropping the patriotic songs, but was swiftly overruled.
The mess this time suggests a lack of management grip: ‘What an own goal,’ as one veteran puts it.
The BBC rightly recognises that the UK is changing.
Part of this change is greater ethnic diversity, and it is right that those voices are being heard on the Corporation and their views listened to.
But another form of diversity is just as important: diversity of thought.
What do I mean?
Well, as Jeremy Clarkson put it recently: ‘It’s also people who work on building sites, people with northern accents, people who drive white vans, who work in Greggs, want to sing Land Of Hope And Glory at the Proms and, yes, even people who voted for Brexit.’
Time and again, in recent years, those have been the perspectives that have been missing, as many of the Corporation’s presenters, star journalists and senior managers seemed baffled by the outcomes of the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election.
The BBC did well 25 years ago in identifying the appeal of Tony Blair and New Labour, but it struggled to understand the rise of Boris Johnson to the Tory leadership and his party’s surge in the polls last year.
Davie, thank goodness, seems to get this.
Privately, according to friends, he admits that the BBC ‘has some blind spots’, acknowledging that it underestimated the strength of public hostility to the EU during the Brexit debate.
The same friends told a Sunday newspaper last weekend that he is determined the BBC should shed its London metropolitan bias and ‘politically correct’ culture.
Can he achieve this? I t will certainly be a challenge. That ‘woke’ mindset seems only to have hardened in recent months, with some insiders expressing fears that it is becoming increasingly impossible to challenge fashionable orthodoxies inside the BBC.
If privately-funded, liberal publishers like the Guardian or the New York Times decide to move further to the Left, that is a commercial and editorial matter for them.
But the Corporation is paid for by the whole of the British public.
Widespread consent for its funding model will vanish unless views from the Right and the Left, from conservatives and liberals, from the shires and the cities — are all reflected.
That is the task Davie faces.
It is a tall order to expect him to achieve all this quickly. I hope the Government will give him some breathing space, though he should not expect an easy ride.
He should be in no doubt, however, that the status quo is not sustainable.
He will need to come up with a revised funding model and a refreshed editorial remit for the BBC.
If he doesn’t manage both soon, the future of the BBC looks very troubled indeed.